If nothing else, the Toronto Maple Leafs have flipped the script.
Seemingly long removed from the Brian Burke era of large, lumbering players oozing truculence. And for that matter, distanced from the Dave Nonis era of inconsistent decision making.
Gone are the old way of thinking as it relates to building a winning team. In its place stand young, fresh faces who have seemingly married together their experiences in the Canadian Hockey League alongside a progressive, forward thinking way of constructing success.
And on Friday during the first round of the NHL entry draft, that shift in philosophy was never more apparent.
The Leafs started the night by selecting a diminutive but highly skilled forward in Mitch Marner, and ended it by showing patience and savvy by trading down in the draft, amassing more draft choices in the process.
Regarding Marner, the Leafs certainly should know what they’re getting.
Parts of the management team (Mark Hunter and Brendan Shanahan) have differing levels of familiarity with the London Knights organization, of which Marner is a product of. Other parts-namely Kyle Dubas-should have a working knowledge of the player too, having likely crossed paths while working their way up very different ladders in Canadian junior hockey.
In the player, the Maple Leafs receive a high-end skilled forward who relies on creativity and puck possession to make an impact on the game. He’s got his strengths, and like most prospects his age, his areas of needed improvement.
Chief among those areas of improvement is continue to get bigger and stronger. The Leafs know this is needed. Marner knows it’s needed as well. However, the league is getting more friendly for smaller players as the years roll on, with the likes of Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau being prime examples of small players whom have had a large impact with their clubs.
At the stage of the rebuild the Maple Leafs find themselves, it is no secret to discover that they in fact need a lot of everything.
Dylan Strome was a much speculated about player that the Leafs had in their sights. As was Noah Hanifin. However, with Strome going third overall to the Coyotes, the management conglomerate in Toronto decided to make Marner their guy.
People championing for Strome or Hanifin weren’t wrong, of course. For in today’s NHL a big top six centre and a minute munching cornerstone defensemen are key to success. But so too, however, is highly skilled players. And while the Leafs have a need in all of the areas mentioned above, they felt comfortable beginning to address one of them with the known commodity in Marner.
Holding a 2nd first round draft choice, the Maple Leafs decided to move down the board from 24th to 29th in a trade with Philadelphia. Moments later they continued their crab walk down the draft board, trading said 29th pick to Columbus, all the while stockpiling draft choices along the way.
All told, the Maple Leafs essentially used rental players Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to acquire the 24th selection in the draft, which they then used to eventually acquire pick 34, 61, and 68, not to mention a 6th rounder in 2016 and two prospects from Nashville in the original deal.
With the dust settled, the Maple Leafs had managed to pass up making a 2nd first round choice in the name of acquiring more assets. Sound strategy when the cupboard is as bare as the one the management team is currently dealing with.
The Maple Leafs now have nine selections on what is sure to be a busy day two, and must feel reasonable confident that they can still get a player they liked at the 24th spot with their 34th pick. Confidence that must have been elevated when a few projected late first rounders were left on the board when all was said and done.
Toronto Maple Leafs fans and media alike have a tendency to overreact to many things. However, it isn’t an understatement to say that this next week, with the draft and free agency period taking place, is a crucial point in the rebuilding process.
We won’t know how this will all look in five years. But from here, it’s a promising start.